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No. 44: Baptism Unto Priesthood: Historical Notes

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 44
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
March, 1995

In a recent article in Biblical Horizons , I argued that the imagery of James 1:21 alludes to baptism, and particularly to baptism as an ordination and incorporation into the holy priesthood. This understanding of baptism as ordination to priesthood is not, I have since discovered, original, but in fact was widely recognized in the early church. For most the church fathers who mention priesthood in relation to baptism, it is not the washing of baptism per se that admits the baptized to priesthood; instead, the baptized is admitted to the priesthood by the chrismation, the anointing with oil, that follows baptism in many early baptismal liturgies. This separation of anointing to priesthood from the baptismal washing itself fits with the rather wooden way in which early treatises on the sacraments assigned different graces to each distinct act of the baptism liturgy. Whatever the early writers had in mind about the relation of the anointing to the baptism itself, we can at least conclude that the various ceremonies that accompanied baptism explicated its meaning. However this relationship is construed, it is significant that ordination to priestly service was closely associated with baptism. Here I merely offer a few examples of how this connection was highlighted in various works.

In his treatise On Baptism, Tertullian states that the anointing has its origin in the ordination of priests in the Old Testament: “We come up from the washing and are anointed with the blessed unction, following that ancient practice by which, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses, there was a custom of anointing them for priesthood with oil out of a horn” (chapter 7).

Ambrose in The Mysteries cites Psalm 133 to explain the meaning of the anointing. The oil is said to flow “upon the beard” because it represents the “grace of youth.” It is said to flow specifically upon the beard of Aaron so that “you may become a ‘chosen race,’ sacredotal, precious; for we are all anointed unto the kingdom of God and unto the priesthood with spiritual grace.” In his treatise, The Sacraments, he added that “everyone is anointed into the priesthood, is anointed into the kingdom, but the spiritual kingdom is also the spiritual priesthood.” Notice here that Ambrose associates the anointing not only with ordination to priesthood, but also with the fact that the members of the church are kings by union with Christ their king. Typologically, the anointing is based on the anointing of the kings of Israel.

In his discussion of sacramental “character,” Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, 3a, 63.1) develops a similar view. “Character” refers to the indelible spiritual sign or seal that Aquinas argues is imprinted on the soul through baptism. Aquinas uses the analogy of a soldier who, in the ancient world, was marked with a tattoo as a sign of his deputation to a particular function in the military. Similarly, through the sacramental character the individual is “deputed for some function in the spiritual sphere pertaining to the worship of God.” In a later section (63.3), Thomas clarifies how the character is imprinted on the soul. He argues that the character is imparted by Christ. Character confers participation in the priesthood of Christ: “seeing that a configuration to his priesthood is imparted to the faithful through the sacramental characters which are nothing else than a certain kind of participations in the priesthood of Christ derived from Christ himself.”

At a more general level, Thomas’s argument is that baptism is designed to prepare the baptized for certain actions, specifically the action of the cultus Dei, the worship of God. In a rather elaborate argument, he situates character in the “powers” of the soul (as opposed to the essence or passions of the soul), because “everything which is designed to lead to an act is to be attributed to a power” and character is designed to lead to an act. In this same section, Thomas rejects the idea that baptismal character most nearly pertains to grace; instead, baptism is most nearly connected to the acts of divine worship.

Another interesting dimension of this connection is the inclusion in many early baptismal rites of the “effeta.” According to Bede’s account of this rite, the priest touches the tongue, nostrils, and ears of the baptized, and says, repeating Jesus’ words from Mark 7:32, “Be opened.” To Bede, this suggests that the baptized is to have his tongue loosed to speak God’s words; the nostrils are associated with the breath of God; and the ear is touched to open it to listen to God. I have yet to find a writer that associates the effeta with the priestly ordination in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8-9, but the parallels are not insignificant. In the Old Testament rite, blood was smeared on the priest’s right ear, right thumb, right big toe. Perhaps the effeta is another indication of the church’s recognition that baptism inducted a person into the New Covenant priesthood.